‘Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’ Seems to Be a Game at the Top of Its Franchise

“Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” hopes to live up to its name, but not by having players re-experience the trials and tribulations of Odysseus as told by Homer, but rather by giving players a chance to create their own epic tale, their own odyssey during a time much later and more volatile in Greek history than the mythical Trojan War.

Player choice is key among several major shifts in this latest “Assassin’s Creed,” due out later this year. Constructed to tell a story more driven by player choice than ever before in the franchise, in a place more storied than ever visited.

In “Odyssey,” players take on the role of mercenary, a Spartan abandoned as a child to fend for himself who has grown to become a masterful Spartan soldier. In their own adventures, crafted by how they tackle the story and how they talk with other characters, players will battle with shield and spear, with sword and bow. They will travel and fight on horseback, at sea in vessels they control and they will work to have their own impact on the brewing, historic Peloponnesian War, an ancient Greek war fought from 431 BC to 404 BC between the Athenians and Spartans.

And the whole thing remains linked to “Assassin’s Creed Origins” by the DNA of the game’s protagonist, a choice between a woman and a man at the beginning of the game. Whomever a player chooses is a descendant of Leonidas, the warrior king of Sparta. And the player starts the game with Leonidas’ spear, which over time will grant a special set of abilities, more spectacular than any seen before in “Assassin’s Creed.”

A Greek Tragedy

“We knew we would have to change the way we tell our stories,” Melissa MacCoubrey, narrative director of the game, told Variety. “We had to move from a traditional spectative storytelling into one that is choice driven.”

But the entire franchise was build on an approach that in narrative moments essentially cast the player as a spectator, putting all of the storytelling on the cinematic moments of the game.

“With choice-driven narrative, we’ve moved from that model with player only having input in moments of action, to having input in moments of action and story,” she said.

The goal was to make an experience that wouldn’t be read or watched, but rather lived.

MacCoubrey, a former theater student, said she has always been a big fan of the classic Greek plays and to prepare for this game, she went back and reread the classics like “Agamemnon,” “The Odyssey,” and “Oedipus Rex.”

“I was so immersed in that storytelling that it was extremely exciting for me from a personal level to be looking at it from a brand perspective,” she said. “One thing that I thought would be extremely satisfying was to explore freedom versus order. What is the conflict we have witnessed between assassin and templar?”

With “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey,” the game developers have a chance not to examine the origin of the two groups, but rather the base philosophies that created them.

“This is lore that touches every moment in history,” she said. “We wanted to explore what made up those two ideologies.”

The game’s backstory is one of family tragedy.

A prophecy of the Oracle of Delphi says that your noble Spartan family is going to destroy all of Sparta. So your family is killed and you are tossed off of Mount Taygetus and left for dead.

Now, 17 years later, you are a mercenary in the Catalonia Islands when a contract comes your way that sets you out on your own odyssey through the classic Greek world.

To help co-create that player story, the developers ended up creating an in-house interactive dialog system with more than 30 hours of interactive storytelling to engage with.

That includes the chance to talk with historic and fictional characters, and learn more not just about the story of the game, but the story of ancient Greece.

“You can have a conversation with history and interact with history like never before,” MacCoubrey said. “That also means we are creating multiple storylines that intertwine with one another, that branch off and go in different directions.”

Your choices, she said, impact the story. And they include everything from picking fights to romance.

“If you want to have a debate with Sokrates, you can do that,” she said. “If you want to become friends with Hypocrites, you have to gain his trust.”

And just because the game’s title suggests that this is a tragedy, MacCoubrey said the team couldn’t help but also include many other classic forms of Greek narrative like the comedy and histories.

The Biggest “Assassin’s Creed”

“Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” is set in the biggest, most diverse world the franchise has ever offered to players. And there is no brotherhood code, so players can do whatever they want, but the game will punish you.

A major component of the game is the Peloponnesian War System. This system divides the entire world into 27 regions, each with different leaders, each with different allegiances to Athenians or Spartans.

When a state gets weak, it becomes vulnerable and gets invaded. Leaders need help to prevent that, so they create contracts to weaken other states or defend their own. As a mercenary, players can pick up contracts, but so can computer-controlled mercenaries. And as you and other mercenaries complete these contracts, you make enemies and inevitably contracts are put out against different mercenaries, including you. Making you both the hunter and hunted.

Another major beat in the game’s features is the return of open-world naval exploration and battles. Players can explore the seas and fight with anyone seamlessly. You recruit your crew, customize your ship, and then go wherever you want and do whatever you want.

These naval battles, specific to ancient Greece, involve a lot of ramming, arrows, and boarding.

Leaning more heavily into a role-playing style, “Odyssey” also greatly expands how you can outfit and customize your character.

Special abilities and gear, deep ability trees, and a fight system impacted by all of your build-out, make the game feel very different than previous “Assassin’s Creed” titles.

The Demo

The demo dropped press into the Delos and Milos islands in what the developers call the paradise biome. The demo is about 15 hours to 20 hours into the game, and the character was already built out with 18 or so skills and abilities. Over the course of the roughly two hours with the game, we had access to 13 quests, conquest battles, naval battles, and more.

The demo started off with a side mission of sorts, a self-contained narrative that isn’t part of the main story arch. In it, the player received a letter from a rebel asking for help taking down the Athenian leader of the islands. It so happens that this leader is also part of the cult that has been harassing your family for generations.

We have the option to take on this challenge or to ignore it and explore on our own. But the developers warn us before the demo started, if you try to take this leader on head on from the get go, he’s going to kill you.

The demo is so big, one developer said, that he’s been playing it for weeks.

“I try something different every time,” he said. “There are many, many paths leading to the end payoff.”

The demo opens on a choice of gender and then drops you onto the docks of one of the islands. The weapons and gear of the time go a long way to fashion the way the game plays, especially during moments of combat.

While I can still clamber up the walls of buildings, hide in tall grass, or sneak up on  enemies to kill them quietly, this game seems to lend itself much more to short bursts of open combat, followed by running and hiding.

It’s a cycle of violence spiked with tactics, evasion, and skill that feels more rewarding than any of the combat that’s come in previous games.

Perhaps that feeling of being overtly powerful, of literally Spartan kicking enemies off rooftops or down mountainsides, helps to differentiate this “Assassin’s Creed’s” combat. But it feels like it’s more than that.

There’s the ability to use more overt, powerful attacks, like slamming down on enemies with that spear, or grabbing a shield from an enemy and bashing them with it. There’s the wide selection of weapons and the Spartan and Athenian nature of combat. There’s also a strong possibility that this more combative “Assassin’s Creed” is simply the byproduct of my play style, of the choices I make even in that short time with the demo, shaping the experience and the enemies.

After charging around on the two islands on foot and horseback, and examining the locations from a literal eagle’s eye view, I decided to take on the mission’s key protagonist.

As I approached his home on a hilltop, I quietly rid the area of its outer rank of guards. Each time I took someone down or ransacked some of his treasure, each bit of damage I committed lowered his power, making him an easier target for a direct attack.

I ended up taking him on three separate times. Once, by accident when walking directly into him as I snuck into a room, twice on purpose. All three ended the same way, with my death. But none of those deaths felt like failures. Instead, they became lessons of sort, giving me perspective on his inner circle of bodyguards, on his own attack style, even on his home.

Why There? Why Then?

“Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” arrives at a time when Ubisoft founder Yves Guillemot promised that “Assassin’s Creed” wouldn’t be an annualized property anymore, that the teams making these beloved games would take more time and care with their creation.

But now, one year after the release of “Origins,” we’re getting another “Assassin’s Creed.”

When I ask Jonathan Dumont, the game’s creative director, about that, he tells Variety that he can’t talk about what was said in the past about the franchise, just about this game he and others worked on.

“We have worked very hard as a full team for three years,” he said. “The team is super confident about this game, it is amazing to play.”

The idea for the game came about thanks, in some ways, due to the new narrative structure for “Odyssey” and a love of the stories of ancient Greece.

“I always liked movies like ‘The 300,’” Dumont said. “Stories told about myths and legends always really attracted me, so I started thinking about it as a possible setting.”

Dumont said as he started researching ancient Greece, he discovered more and more ways in which that civilization helped shape the world we live in today.

“That world influences who we are today and how we quantify and qualify things,” he said. “But the thing I didn’t want to do was make a classic portrayal of a Greek textbook, I wanted to make a game about who they were and because we were making a choice-based game, it was really the perfect match for us.”

And in telling this personal story created with and for the player, it gave the game creators an opportunity to examine much of the roots of civilization, from its history to its mythology.

Dumont declined to say how the game will treat the ancient gods, whether they will be things purely of myth or somehow be treated as fictional beings with a real impact on the world.

“The perpetuation of myths is a very interesting thing,” he said. “What is true and what is not true? To what extent do people think about that back then?”

MacCoubrey notes that the size of the world for Greeks at the time was so huge that any travel was a major endeavor. The things that happened during those trips were often seen as the work of the gods.

“There were an explanation of how things came to be and a fear of the unknown,” she said.

The ocean, the azure surroundings of Greece play a big part of that unknown, as well as the gods’ use of the sea and its mysteries to waylay travelers, kill heroes, delay arrivals in the infamous “The Odyssey.”

So, too, it seems, will the oceans play a big role in “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.”

The achingly beautiful setting on the Aegean Sea lends itself to naval travel and warfare. I spent the last 15 minutes or so tempting with a relatively small Spartan ship. The galley-like trireme of my experiences was an agile, though relatively small ship. After steering it around the bay, where I discovered it, I made my way into more open waters and immediately sped the ship toward another to ram it.

Players can press a button to prepare for the impact, lessening the damage to your characters. You can also do this when under from other ships or getting rammed yourself.

The main attacks during my time with the ship was to ram, fire a volley of arrows, and throw arrows that were on fire. Once a ship is so damaged it’s dead in the water, you also have the option to board and shift to standard melee combat.

The experience was invigorating, also eye-opening.

I discovered, for instance, that if I attacked a ship under one flag, any nearby ships that happened upon us and flew under the same flag would come to its rescue.

Taking on three ships in the Aegean with a trireme and a clutch of Spartan soldiers is the type of experience designed to craft memories and evoke heroic, or disastrous, player stories. With just two hours to explore, my time with naval warfare, like all of my time lost in the game, felt far too short.

“Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” is shaping up to be a game that lives up to both its name and its franchise: An unforgettable experience in a meaningful, carefully cultivated universe.

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